On the trail of the James Gang


Deputy Sheriff Michael Lynch had his work cut out for him. With nothing but a frayed piece of rope in his hand, the 45-year-old Warwick lawman set out to solve a mystery.

For far too long, certain villages in the Warwick area had been victimized by a gang of mystery men. Businesses had been broken into and robbed, clotheslines stripped of their contents, and henhouses raided. Now, the people of Exeter were falling prey to what seemed to be the work of the same lawless group. So scared were the residents there of what these men might do, they formed a watchdog group.

On June 15, 1889, an Exeter widow found that she had been robbed of her poultry. The thieves had been driving a four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage. Their movement was tracked to East Greenwich, but the vehicle couldn’t be found there.

Two days later, during the afternoon, the men returned to the widow’s home in the same carriage. She was outside working in her garden at the time of their arrival and was not aware they had gone inside her house until the noise of them fleeing caught her attention.

The house was ransacked and fifty dollars was gone. But the bandits had left something behind that Sheriff Lynch would use to stop this wave of crime and terror. The robbers had tied their horse to a post outside. In an effort to escape the scene quickly, they didn’t waste time untying the horse but simply cut the rope.

With the rope fragment in his possession, Lynch set out on his investigation.

At the Warwick stable of a 46-year-old Irishman named Edward O’Donnell, he found some answers. O’Donnell said some men had recently rented a carriage from him and brought it back with the end of the rope missing from the halter. Lynch asked him who the men were. O’Donnell told him they were the James boys.

Henry Clay James, the son of Giles and Lydia of West Greenwich, was a 61-year-old husband and father who had previously worked as an express wagon driver and saloonkeeper. Henry’s brother George was 48 years old and George’s son, Roscoe Allen James, was 21. Collectively, the three men were locally known as “The James Gang.”

Lynch didn’t have to look far for the scoundrels. George and Roscoe were arrested at their home at 4 a.m. on June 21, 1889. Henry was found walking down a road leading out of Arctic. They were held at Kingston Jail while awaiting trial. Charged with robbing the Exeter widow, all three were found guilty by a jury. George and Henry were sentenced to serve two years in prison, while Roscoe was sentenced to serve one year.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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